Ecosystems are becoming more and more vulnerable due to loss or fragmentation of habitats, loss of biomass and reduced diversity. The EU-FET project ASSISIbf created robots that integrate themselves into diverse animal populations and that established a new ecological connection at a distance, a technique that may be used to stabilize and repair damaged ecosystems in future.

Bees interacting with a "bee" robot

Human society has triggered the sixth mass extinction event of organisms in earth’s history (the last one ripped away the dinosaurs). With up to 75% of insect biomass being lost during the last 15 years and comparably large losses of mammals, birds, fish and other oceanic life, most ecosystems around us are extremely “thinned out”. Such sparsely populated ecosystems are very unstable and drift towards sudden and significant collapses as soon as their tipping points of stability have been passed. Many studies have shown that diversity and richness of species-to-species interaction are key factors for stable and robust ecosystems. The more diversity gets lost, the more fragile ecosystems become.

Interfacing colonies of fish and bees with robots - The FET project ASSISIbf

The EU FET project ASSISIbf , coordinated by University of Graz, started by integrating autonomous robots into societies (swarms) of honeybees and fish, two groups of organisms that are under extreme ecological stress today. See a previous BLOG post on these fundamental research performed in the project ASSISIbf to study and understand the social dynamics within these animal systems.

Video summary of the goals, technology and significant impacts of the project ASSISIbf. Copyright Thomas Schmickl, University of Graz.

Now, the researchers expanded their fundamental research by conducting a very unconventional, and thus unique, experiment:  They used these robots to allow a group of honeybees in Graz, Austria to coordinate their social aggregations with the collective navigation decisions of a group of fish in Lausanne, Switzerland. This was the first time that information was transferred from one animal species to another species over the Internet through a group of robots acting as mediators and translators.

Video of the inter-species coordination experiment. Copyright Thomas Schmickl, University of Graz.

This first robot-facilitated, inter-species and bi-directional information transfer stabilized both groups to a behavior that represents an ecological equilibrium, thus it was the first artificially induced ecological linkage produced by mankind with robot technology. This worked well with two species that are not tuned by natural selection to interact with each other, proving the versatility and the generality of this technology. As ecological connections disappear by species extinction, we may in future repair such fragile ecosystems by introducing robotic agents as new artificial “keystone species”, creating new stabilizing interactions this way. The long-distance communication that was proven to work also in this context may help us to ecologically re-unite fragmented habitats what may further stabilize such ecosystems. Besides the pure intervention, the gained insights into the ecosystems, based on the data collected by such ecologically integrated robots, may help us to further protect and monitor precious natural environments for our future well being.

The work was coordinated by Thomas Schmickl, University of Graz, Austria who also hosted the honeybees and bee robots in his lab. The fish and fish robot side of the experiment was conducted by EPFL, Lausanne, Switzerland, who engineered the fish robot. This experiment required fundamental studying of the animal societies, predicting them with mathematical models and engineering the right robots, what was done by: LARICS, University of Zagreb (bee robots); LIED, University Paris-Diderot, France (fish biology); FCiencias.ID, Lisboa, Portugal (computer science); Cybertronica Research, Stuttgart, Germany (electronics).

If you want to read further on this, please see here the public Open Access link to the Science Robotics article describing the new experiment: Robots mediating interations between animals for interspecies collective bevaviors.